Cumulative impacts to the environment are the combined effects of past, present and foreseeable human activities, over time, in a particular place.
While the Legislature mulled over whether to allow more carcinogens and pollution into our state waterways under HB 2506 — which would allow more pollution into streams — they should consider the effect such a rule might contribute toward the cumulative impacts on our state’s resources — its people, environment, economy and image.
For as long as I can remember in my 40 years, I recall repeated pleas for lessening environmental regulations for the sake of job-creation, but as I look across the state, I often wonder where those jobs landed after the calls for allowing more pollution into our publicly-owned waterways were heeded.
I don’t see jobs. I see struggling communities, fleeing labor, stacking debt, stressed waterways, and crumbling public infrastructure. We have failed to value quality of living — by maintaining the integrity of our land and waterways — unnecessarily creating obstacles that make it difficult to retain and attract businesses and people into our state.
West Virginia faces a $500 million deficit in the coming year, but industries and businesses across the state will continue tapping publicly owned rivers and streams with no compensation to the citizens — likely trillions of gallons annually. Do we not value our water? Legislation like HB 2506 makes it appear that we don’t. Passage of this rule will show that we value the ability to pollute more than finding ways to support the resilience and health of our communities and waterways.
In southern West Virginia, more than 350,000 acres of hardwood forests on nearly 150 mountains have been cleared and flattened by mountaintop mining. The mining practice has buried hundreds of headwater streams under valley fills — absolutely altering their ecologic functions of supporting aquatic life and providing clean drinking water.
Throughout West Virginia, we have thousands of miles of streams impacted by legacy mining pollution, acid mine drainage, with a price tag for cleanup more than $1 billion.
Hydraulic fracturing, underground injection of wastes, bacteriological pollution from failing infrastructure, general pollution from runoff, and hazardous waste storage, also threaten our waterways, the latter evidenced by the 2014 spill into the Elk River that left up to 300,000 residents without potable water.
Tack on the inability to adequately fund schools and retain teachers, addiction and cancer rates above national averages, as well as continually declining population, it is no wonder that West Virginians are found to be unhappy, according to national polls.
While it might be argued that any of these things listed may be insignificant or easily managed by themselves, cumulative impacts gather and overwhelm our ability to manage a rising tide of negative effects. The result is the degradation of important resources, namely people and the environment, which are the very image of our state.
It is past time that our legislators start paying attention and giving credence to the enduring cause of protecting the abundant and increasingly important water resources in our state, which they are bound by law to protect “for the public welfare.” We must shift our trajectory from fleeting to enduring and resilient. Allowing more pollution is not the way to take the first step on this track.
A.H. Webster lives in Morgantown.